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Article No.: 12-1 (01/01/12)

Article Title: What is Learning Agility, and Why Should I Care?

Authors: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, CEQC & Sheri Caldwell, Ph.D., SPHR, CEQC

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Can a round peg fit into a square hole?  Can an old dog learn new tricks?  It depends. . .  While this answer may seem like a cop out, it is true.  It really does matter on a myriad of factors, and one of those factors pertains to the individual involved.  If a person has learning agility, s/he could learn “a new trick,” regardless of age.
 
What is learning agility?  It sounds cool…and Sheri remembers her gymnastics coach telling her mother when she was younger that she wasn’t as agile as Sheri was.  He meant flexible.  So, if you add the word learning to agility, does that translate to flexible learning?  Yes!
 
Learning agility is related to at both current performance and longer term potential.  The concept of “learning agility” has been used to describe individuals who possess skills such as openness, willingness to learn, and flexibility. In addition, a learning agile person is curious about the world, has a high tolerance for ambiguity, good people skills, vision, and innovation.  In general, learning agility relates to adaptability and willingness to explore the unknown.  More specifically, learning agility can predict an individual's potential performance in new tasks.

There are four types of Learning Agility:

  1. Mental
  2. People
  3. Change
  4. Results

Mental agility refers to individuals who are comfortable with complexity, examine problems carefully, and make connections between different things. People agility refers to individuals who know themselves well and can readily deal with a diversity of people and tough situations. Change agility refers to individuals who like to experiment and can cope effectively with the discomfort of rapid change. Finally, results agility refers to those individuals who can deliver results in first-time situations by inspiring teams and having significant impact.   We believe this suggests that learning agility may have considerable value in staff selection.

So if we have a way to help predict job performance and job promotability, why is it that only seven percent of respondents to a recent survey (Robert W. Eichinger , Michael M. Lombardo) agree that their companies had enough talented managers, and only three percent agree with the statement: "We develop people effectively"?  It’s no wonder talent management and retention have become prime focal points of many organizations, regardless of level.
 
We’re discovering that C-suite executives are realizing that a distinguishing characteristic of successful organizations is the ability to identify, develop and deploy exceptional leadership talent.

In other words, if organizations knew how to hire for and develop learning agility, they would gain an advantage over the competition.  The problem is that figuring out exactly how to do this is more of an art, not a science.  There is not a magic formula, so gaining a better understanding of what it is may help you realize it better when you see it.  And that’s the key…distinguishing high performing organizations and/or high performing individuals from those that are missing this exceptional leadership talent.
  
Linda has worked as an organizational development and human resource management consultant for 21 years and has witnessed many examples of success related to the leadership’s learning agility.  One of her client company’s is a 175-employee software development company that develops software for the car salvage industry.  The company just celebrated its 15th year in business, and the now 50-year-old CEO is still amazed at the company’s growth and success.  Linda is not because she has witnessed his ability to adapt his software development skills to a highly specialized industry and customer base.  Before taking the CEO position at this company, he was Chief Technology Officer for a high-tech software development company and he led a small development team of a few self-professed computer geeks.  He had to learn how to transfer those leadership skills to collaboration with an executive team with all types of experience and expertise, from Marketing to Manufacturing to Finance.  Had he stayed in the development area and not learned about all phases of a business, he – and likely the family-owned company – would have failed within the first five years.

Linda is also working with the CEO of a small sales consulting company who is a former sales representative.  Being good at sales does not automatically translate to helping Sales leaders select and develop excellent sales people, however.  This CEO had to adapt her firsthand experience and talent as a sales professional to positioning herself as someone who could recognize the potential in others and coach them to be successful.  She has been very successful because her high level of learning agility helped her transition from being a sales person to a sales consultant to high level sales executives.

With our tough economy and a plethora of competition in the marketplace, it’s not surprising that two-thirds of startup companies fail.  So, what is it that makes some companies last?  While there are a myriad of reasons, such as financial strength, technical competence, imagination and innovation, or even customer service, competitive pricing, as well as emotional intelligence, there’s one underlying factor that is behind every successful organization, and that’s employing a learning agile staff.
 
In her consulting work over the years, Linda has discovered that many managers who produced positive results based on their current technical skills did not perform well when they were promoted.  One unfortunate case is of a highly skilled Information Technology technician who was promoted in a small publishing company to the position of VP of Information Services.  His need to micromanage every small detail that his team needed to deliver caused him to lose sight of the strategic decisions he needed to make and communicate.  The result was that his vision was never fully formed or executed and he alienated his staff because he was trying to do their jobs for them.  He lasted less than a year in the executive position because he couldn’t adapt to managing strategies rather than a day-by-day work flow.
 
Learning Agility can be a critical factor in an organization’s success and has proved to be a conceptually intriguing topic.  While some research has been done on the subject, we felt it worth further exploration.  Stay tuned for more articles this year on the topic, which will be excerpts from our next book on the subject of learning agility.

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